Revolutionary Measures

Marketing to the disinterested

Marketing gets a lot of stick from consumers. While in the past it might have been complaints about junk mail and sales calls, now it is untargeted online ads and spam email. No wonder that so many people complain that they have had enough of marketing, and say they pay no attention to it.marketing-man-person-communication.jpg

However, as Joe Glover points out in his vlog, what they are actually moaning about, is bad marketing that ignores the fundamental definition of marketing itself. That is that marketing is about meeting the needs of the customer. Therefore, if your marketing campaign is not producing the right effect, then you have failed – not the idea of marketing itself. Essentially this type of bad marketing is now much more visible to us, as we see it in the digital world, including on our smartphones, where it feels much more personal and untargeted, particularly given the amount of data that we end up sharing online.

Good marketing is pretty much invisible – it interests us by either meeting an existing need or by pre-empting a need we didn’t necessarily know we had. While a huge amount of academic and practical work has gone into justifying the art and science of marketing, it simply comes down to consumer needs.

It reminds me of attending a marketing conference, where the founder of the English Whisky Company, a farmer called Andrew Nelstrop, stood up and said he’d built his business without marketing, and that therefore it wasn’t that much use. Of course, his explanation of how he’d met a need, listened to consumers and delivered the right product and experience was a text-book case of a solid, well-executed marketing programme. He just associated marketing with expensive advertising and therefore didn’t think it was for him.

Clearly meeting customer needs is a broad concept, which is why marketers have come up with different stages and models that take a consumer from initial awareness of a product or service all the way through to purchase and beyond. The granddaddy of them all is AIDA, which stands for:

  • Attention/Awareness – i.e. attracting the consumer
  • Interest – piquing their interest by focusing on benefits
  • Desire – making them want what you’ve got
  • Action – getting them to take a positive step such as purchase

The advantages of AIDA are that it is simple and can be applied to other activities rather than just buying something – voting, signing a petition or even joining an organisation. Where it does fall down is that it is a linear process that finishes with the sale – there’s no nurturing of the customer after that, no attempt to keep them loyal or to turn them into a brand advocate. That’s one of the reasons I like the model Joe Glover talks about (even if the acronym isn’t as memorable):

  • Awareness – getting in front of the consumer
  • Consideration – helping them when they want to buy something
  • Purchase – making it easy for them to buy
  • Retention – keeping them loyal
  • Advocacy – encouraging them leave reviews/recommendations

As a marketer the main thing is not the model that you pick – it is understanding that the aim of your company/product/service is to fill a customer need and creating a programme that does this as effectively as possible. Get it right and you’ll be invisible (except in terms of growing sales) – get it wrong and you’ll be stuck in consumers’ minds for all the wrong reasons.

Advertisements

February 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PR and the frontline of the information war

Like a lot of relatively new terms, fake news has a long history. Claiming lies as the truth goes all the way back to ancient times, with propaganda and false claims used to justify activities and to hold onto power. Take the commonly held view we have of the ‘barbarian’ Celtic tribes that the Romans conquered, which ignores their culture and achievements, or the Shakespearian propaganda about the poor governance of Richard III.

480px-Center_for_Information_Warfare_Training_logo

Frequently fake news is too polite a term for downright lies – and in many cases is used to complain about a point of view that while valid, you simply don’t agree with. On a more serious level, deliberate misinformation designed to sway public opinion is on the increase, thanks to the spread of social media and the fact that it cleverly backs up our own beliefs and prejudices.

Whatever the scale of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, it is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to disrupt democracy – but the combination of a receptive, partisan audience and easy access to millions of people makes it the most successful. And it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon – as CIA director Mike Pompeo recently pointed out he expects further interference in this year’s midterm elections.

Combating disinformation and fake news isn’t easy, but to be effective the solution has to involve everyone – from governments to individuals.

1.Governments
Many Western governments have been slow to realise the danger of fake news, and therefore haven’t acted to root it out. The US election has changed that, and governments are increasingly setting up dedicated teams to track and counter propaganda and other fake news. The UK Cabinet Office is creating a new unit to respond rapidly to fake news, whether from Russians or from other sources looking to warp public discourse.

2. Platforms
There’s an ongoing debate about social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the responsibility they should take for identifying and removing fake news. They claim they are platforms, not publishers, but are under increasing pressure to police their users’ content more effectively. They need to step up and be prepared to out fake news – otherwise they are likely to face greater regulation and/or advertiser boycotts.

3. The PR industry
Communications professionals need to play their part as well. There is a line between spin and fake news, and it is up to us not to cross it and to make sure we are behaving ethically and advising clients accordingly. The Bell Pottinger case demonstrates that not only are there reputational risks to failing to follow good practice, but there are financial consequences as well. We need to think through the consequences of our actions as members of society, rather than simply pumping out messages to the world, without reflecting on their impact.

4. The public
It often feels that we live in an increasingly polarised world, with social media making it easy to screen out views we don’t agree with. At the same time we’re bombarded with information, and very often don’t take the time to review and check it before retweeting it or sharing on Facebook. As someone who studied history I know how important it is to understand the source of a piece of information and therefore the bias and particular message it contains. Everyone needs to do this – but at the same time they need to open themselves up to having a rational debate. Ignoring or trying to ban other (legal) points of view just reinforces prejudices – as the saying goes “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With increasing military activity and sabre rattling in areas such as North Korea, fake news can seem relatively low level and harmless. But it is the frontline of an information war – and it is up to all of us to combat it if we are to move forward as a coherent, democratic society.

Image By United States Navy – Naval Education and Training Command website at http://www.netc.navy.mil/netc/Commands/NETCcenters.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56331324

January 31, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook, News and the impact on communications

The last year or so has seen a rude awakening for tech giants, particularly social media platforms. As they’ve risen in importance, politicians, regulators and the public have moved from seeing their benefits to seeing their downsides – from the spreading of fake news to harbouring racist/terrorist content. Ironically, for the predominantly open and left-leaning leaders of Silicon Valley firms, social media has been at the heart of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, the two biggest political upsets of recent times.

And, all the while the profits of Facebook and Google have grown sharply – it is estimated that in 2017 these two tech giants alone claimed around 80% of every new online-ad dollar in America. Calls are being made for such companies to be more tightly regulated, and to take legal responsibility for the content that they host.

512px-Mark_Zuckerberg_-_South_by_Southwest_2008_-_3

Faced with this mounting opposition and a potential drop in usage, Facebook has been making changes to its algorithms, with the aim of focusing time spent on the platform on ‘meaningful social interactions’, according to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That means reducing the amount of content that people see in their News Feed from media and businesses, with the balance shifting more towards content from family and friends.

Publishers have grown to increasingly rely on Facebook for traffic to their sites, and many have already seen a drop in referrals from the social network. This has led to job cuts at many newer media outlets that have relied on social traffic (such as Buzzfeed and Mashable), as well as consternation from others worried about the impact of the changes on their revenues. Rupert Murdoch has called for Facebook to pay ‘carriage fees’ for using news from media outlets on the site, while others have demanded subscription models to support their journalism.

The key problem for publishers is that Facebook has increasingly become the place many people get their news, meaning you need to continually interest them with individual stories, rather than expecting them to buy a newspaper or browse from a news website’s home page. Many Facebook users probably couldn’t tell you who published the story they clicked on – and the same is true for other newsfeed services such as that offered on iPhones.

So publishers risk having the rug pulled out from under a major source of traffic – at the same time that Google and Facebook have hoovered up the ad revenues that previously supported their activities. While most people won’t shed that many tears at Rupert Murdoch’s power and profits reducing, there are bigger issues here around media plurality and holding people to account at all levels.

The dramatic drop in local newspapers has meant that councils are under less scrutiny from journalists than ever before, and while concerned citizens have taken over in some cases, they are less likely to be impartial or have the training to analyse and comment on complicated stories. I believe that the rise of the internet in general, and of social media in particular, has also contributed to a polarisation of views – people simply don’t see content that constructively challenges their point of view and makes them think about their beliefs. Being in a bubble makes it easy to reinforce existing beliefs and demonise the opposition, ultimately hurting democratic dialogue.

It is too easy to blame Facebook for all of these issues, but it does need to step up and take more responsibility for the consequences of its actions. That means looking at how it works with publishers, and the type of content it does carry, if it is to avoid heavier regulation and potential fines down the line. The ball is definitely in Zuckerberg’s court.

Image (CC) Brian Solis, http://www.briansolis.com / bub.blicio.us, via Wikimedia Commons

January 24, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luther and Leave – the communication comparisons

As someone who studied history I have a tendency to take a long view of events, comparing and contrasting different eras. And, given this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is worth looking at any lessons that can be learnt by communicators from Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door and the widespread rise of anti-establishment movements around the world.Martin_Luther,_1529

First, the political and economic context. Europe in 1517 was made up of multiple, often warring, countries, with power normally focused on a single monarch. Communication was vital to control – you had to know what was going on around your kingdom to ensure order, and larger countries relied on local lords for their support. Most people had a hard life, focused on the land and governed by harvests and the weather. There was one supranational authority, the Catholic Church, which claimed loyalty from all monarchs and their subjects. The rules it set helped ensure its power, pre-eminence and wealth, and Luther’s rebellion was very much against the more worldly behaviour of priests and religious bodies.

Probably 100 years before, Luther’s theses would not have got very far beyond the town he wrote them in. He’d have been arrested by the church, charged, executed and probably forgotten. But the invention of the printing press changed all that, allowing fast communication of his thoughts across Europe, where they could be picked up and turned into a mass movement.

Comparing then and now
Power today is a lot more decentralised, and rule by monarchs has been superseded by elected parliaments. There is a European supranational authority, the European Union, but only its most avid detractors would claim it had the same power over life, death and potential entry into Heaven as the Catholic Church. Instead of the printing press, we have the internet, and particularly social media, which is much more difficult to control, even by the networks themselves.

So, there are a lot of parallels between then and now – an angry population that feels hard done by attacks the establishment, whipped up by charismatic leaders. Both rely on the latest communications technology to sidestep official controls, spreading their message across long distances.

However, what I think is different is that Luther had a positive message that he firmly believed in – he’d been a monk, seen the church from the inside and created an alternative vision based on that. In the same way, Marx and Engels spent years studying the working conditions of the poor before drafting the Communist Manifesto. In contrast today’s populist leaders don’t seem to have a strategy beyond bringing down the old order, with policies that either pander to their followers or offer alternatives that are impossible (Vote Leave and the NHS will get an extra £350m per week) or will cause more harm than good to those that vote for them.

The lessons for communicators from both these examples are clear – if you want your message to resonate you need to have a strong presence on the latest communication channels, whether the printing press or Facebook, and more importantly you need to ensure you are seen as being in-touch with the cares and concerns of those who feel they are not being listened to. After all, the Reformation triggered bloody and sustained wars, the Inquisition and a hardening of positions that is still in evidence today in some countries. Politicians need to take that lesson on board and communicate effectively to woo the disaffected back into the mainstream if they want to remain relevant in today’s society.

December 6, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paperchase and the Daily Mail – the Open and the Closed

Shortly after the Brexit vote I wrote a blog post looking at what the deep division between Leave and Remain meant for marketers. Brands in many markets would need to decide where they targeted their products – at an Open, outward looking audience clustered in cities or a Closed group in the rural shires and much of the Midlands and North. In many cases brands couldn’t appeal to both equally without losing their differentiating factors.

Paperchase

Image Kake via Flickr http://bit.ly/2kaMZY1

The current case of Paperchase and the Daily Mail is the perfect example of this. After deciding to run a promotion with the right wing, pro-Brexit newspaper, a Twitter backlash caused the stationery chain to apologise and commit to not advertising/working with the paper again. Is this a victory for people power, a brand that has succumbed to mob rule, or simply bad marketing? I can see four key factors in the case:

1. Know your customers
Generally, Paperchase targets a young, funky demographic – not that many of whom will be reading the Daily Mail, I suspect. Running a promotion with a publication that doesn’t serve your target audience is initially a bit baffling. However, I can only assume that Paperchase was trying to extend its reach ahead of Christmas, encouraging a non-traditional audience into its stores, with a free roll of wrapping paper. As one of the largest circulation papers in the country, with 4 million readers on a Saturday, the Daily Mail gives a huge potential reach. Once there the hope was obviously that they’d buy more – unlocking new revenues for the chain.

2. Do your crisis management early
If that was the plan then Paperchase failed to understand the depth of feeling amongst its existing customers, at least some of whom are both vehemently anti-Daily Mail and extremely vocal on social media. Led by the pressure group Stop Funding Hate, they vented their disappointment through Twitter and Facebook. This backlash led to the subsequent climbdown from the retailer.

All of this appeared to take Paperchase by surprise, which suggests they hadn’t got a crisis management plan in place, or thought through the potential negative connotations of linking to the Mail. In the end it meant that they pleased nobody – existing customers felt let down and Mail readers felt unwanted, given the decision not to target them again.

3. Be sure of your strategy
Another factor that has been mentioned is the size of the social media backlash. According to reports, around 480 people responded on Twitter, and while they may well be the tip of the iceberg, it is not a significant number, given that in today’s society consumers are much more likely to complain about brands, immediately and in detail, through social media. This means that every decision is going to receive some complaints, particularly if you are trying to extend into new audiences. The question is what additional damage has been done to the Paperchase brand by appearing to cave into pressure so quickly?

4. This isn’t about freedom of speech

Predictably many people, including the Daily Mail, have claimed the Paperchase decision, and Stop Funding Hate’s campaigns, are an attack on free speech. After all, as they point out, we live in a free society and they have every right to adopt the editorial tone that they do. Harassing advertisers into withdrawing funding therefore undermines this freedom and democracy itself. This is a disingenuous argument – I don’t agree with the Daily Mail line on pretty much everything, but agree that provided it does not break the law (including the libel laws) it should be free to publish. As long as it provides a product that people want to read, in numbers, it will be attractive to many advertisers, who believe that it provides them with the opportunity to reach a mass audience that fits their demographic. The efforts of Stop Funding Hate are not going to close down the Daily Mail overnight, so reaching for freedom of speech arguments is neither relevant or helpful.

What the whole affair shows is that unfortunately we are living in an increasingly polarised country and brands need to think hard about the audiences they want to target, and build advertising and PR campaigns that will appeal to them, if they want to drive loyalty and safeguard their reputation. For many this means making a choice between the Open and the Closed – or risking appealing to neither and essentially becoming irrelevant to all.

November 29, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad tech – the PR battle tech companies face

One of the major legacies of the financial crisis was that trust in banks, and indeed the overall financial services industry, took a pounding. The combination of bad behaviour, misselling of products such as PPI, poor customer service and a culture that was perceived as elitist and uncaring all made them public enemy number one. The old stereotype of the bank manager as a respected, upstanding member of the community was consigned to history.

Artificial Intelligence Programming Robot Ai Ki

Artificial Intelligence Programming Robot Ai Ki

In many ways industry reputations are cyclical – before banks, it was probably media organisations (think phone hacking) that were most despised, followed by Big Oil. What is interesting is that I’m seeing a new contender for ‘most hated’ coming up on the rails – tech.

Much of this is down to the huge power technology companies now have over our daily lives. We spend huge amounts of time on our smartphones, on social media, and interacting with technology to get things done. And human nature means that people are quick to forget how things used to be pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, taking the advantages for granted and complaining about what they don’t like.

However, for every story celebrating the progress technology is enabling, I’m seeing at least two arguing that tech companies have too much power, and are not receiving sufficient oversight. In many cases this is true – there is no way of justifying the fact sites such as YouTube, Google and Facebook are earning money on the back of terrorist content or fake news, and at the very least maximising their tax efficiency. But the current mood seems very focused on the negative side of progress and on the harm that it is (potentially) doing, from AI taking our jobs, to websites tracking our every move, and automated checkouts that intimidate the elderly.

At the other end of the spectrum, today’s Budget will see the Chancellor promise that the UK will lead the world in introducing self-driving cars, following a week of announcements around extra funding for technology R&D across the UK. Reading different stories you’d rightly be confused whether the robots are coming to get us Terminator-style or are going to usher in an idyllic life of leisure?

What I think this does is show a need for PR people working in technology (including myself) to take a look at how they communicate and market their companies and clients. It is time to focus on what the benefits are for both consumers and businesses and to honestly address any downsides. That means looking beyond the headline in order to put things into context, and to work with government and charities to solve any unforeseen consequences, be they cyberbullying or unemployment.

Essentially it goes back to being model citizens, and, like previous generations of capitalists (think Victorian families such as the Cadburys and Rowntrees or American philanthropists such as Carnegie), realising that they are responsible for the actions of their products and services. As well as being a genuinely positive thing to do, it ultimately supports society as a whole, including the people that buy from them, making it something that should appeal to their hearts and their heads.

Technology needs to communicate a more open and responsible stance in how it operates if it wants to take the wider population with it towards ever greater innovation.

November 22, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Moz the Monster tells about the changing media landscape

By now pretty much everyone will have seen the latest John Lewis Christmas ad, starring a loveable monster that lives under a young boy’s bed. Without giving away any plot details to the few that haven’t watched it, it all ends happily thanks to a thoughtfully chosen gift.

JohnLewis_MoztheMonster17

 

Over the past few years Christmas adverts have become a fixture of the festive season, with the media (and public) eagerly awaiting the offerings from the likes of John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer. All sides seem to be involved in a creative arms race, with ever-more sophisticated production values and talent involved – Moz cost an alleged £7m and is directed by Oscar-winning director Michel Gondry, while M&S has recruited Paddington (and Angela Rippon) to head its Christmas push.

 

What’s most interesting to me is not which is the ‘best’ advert or how much of an impact it has on sales, but what Christmas adverts tell us about the changing media landscape. Not long ago the only way to ensure that these productions were watched would have been to spend millions booking high profile TV slots and hoping that viewers would be there and watching. This has changed – obviously ads are still shown on TV, but a lot of the viewers are online, with people watching them via company websites and YouTube.

That means that PR and social media are now the key channels for driving ad awareness and views. For example, the John Lewis ad was all over the media, from the marketing press to the tabloids. The BBC ran a piece analysing social media responses to Moz and his antics, while other brands aimed to get on the act, running surveys on which was the most popular Christmas advert. M&S even had to deny that the Paddington advert featured swearing (obviously not by its Peruvian star).

I think this is part of a wider, growing trend. Many people either don’t watch TV adverts or they simply don’t register on their consciousness. You might click on an informational ad after an online search or watch a hyped campaign during a major programme or event, such as the World Cup, but we’re now too sophisticated and short of time to discover them for ourselves.

Therefore, you need PR and social media buzz to get people to notice them, which is a complete turn round from the old model of advertising leading the marketing mix. Christmas adverts aren’t the only example of this – TV programmes, films and books are all trailed in the media, rather than relying on ads. PR people should therefore step up and use this trend to justify having a greater say in marketing decision making – and a larger slice of budgets. Communication is vital to business success – even when it comes to monsters under the bed.

November 15, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Social media, news and (mis)information

How people get their news – and how reliable it is – has been a hot topic since before the US election. And this week the debate intensified, particularly around the role of social media in acting as a gatekeeper between their users and news sources.

Firstly, Facebook began an experiment in six countries where it has removed unpaid news posts from the main feed and put them in another tab. This has decimated traffic to news websites, with one journalist claiming that it reduced click throughs by 75%. Facebook says that there are currently no plans to extend the trial, but given the amount of traffic (and therefore ad revenue) that the social media giant provides to newspapers, they are increasingly concerned about the impact on their business models.

facebook-260818_1920

Secondly, investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the US election continue, with Google, Twitter and Facebook all being questioned at hearings later this week. Ahead of this Facebook announced that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian trolls, while Google has found 18 YouTube channels used to spread disinformation and Twitter has highlighted 2,700 accounts with dubious Russian links.

Both of these stories demonstrate the growing power of social media and the issues that this brings to the press, democracy and individuals. Essentially it boils down to three areas:

1.The dangers of other people’s platforms
Unlike the telephone or post, social media platforms are not intrinsically open and don’t have a public service element. Therefore, Facebook is perfectly within its legal rights to change how it displays third party information, such as news, or even if it displays it at all. Therefore while media companies have become increasingly reliant on Facebook, it isn’t a balanced (or even contractual) relationship. This shows the danger of building a business on someone else’s platform – it is essentially the online equivalent of running a company from premises where you haven’t signed a lease. You can be thrown out at any time, without redress.

2.Black box algorithms
Serving up relevant content that will appeal to users is what Facebook and Google is all about. But how they do this is increasingly complex, involving the analysis of huge amounts of data with proprietary algorithms that are central to their business. As the events of the US election show, it is possible to manipulate or trick these to deliver particular content to targeted users, not just through ads, but in other ways. This obviously goes beyond the normal social media echo chambers that we all tend to sit in, by providing fake content that is likely to appeal to our own positions and biases. Expect the US congressional hearings to call for greater clarity and oversight of the algorithms behind social media platforms, rather than the current black box system. That brings its own issues – it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were complaining about alleged pro-Democrat bias on Facebook.

3. Follow the money
In many ways the news industry has never been healthier – given the current state of turmoil in the world, more people want to know what’s going on. However, while that is good news for individual journalists, it isn’t necessarily good for media businesses as they increasingly give away their content for free and rely on online advertising that brings in much less per impression than traditional print ads. Therefore, cutting traffic to their sites as Facebook’s experiment seems to do removes one of their sources of income, just when they need it most. While the likes of Google have invested in projects to help the media, particularly local newspapers, it doesn’t fill the funding gap that they currently face.

It is difficult to see how both newspapers and social media can move forward and tackle these challenges. Government regulation would be seen as heavy-handed and potentially lead to accusations of bias on the choice and positioning of news, while the social media giants are unlikely to make public the algorithms that their businesses are built on. However, for the wider good in terms of informing the public, something needs to be done.

November 1, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Copy approval and the threat to the truth

The media today faces constant economic pressure – competition is up, digital has decimated advertising, and people are increasingly reading news via other sources such as Facebook and Twitter. This has had a major impact on revenues and how they operate, including increasing the importance of advertorial, paid-for content within publications or on websites.Clarebalding

It has also strengthened the hand of brands, and celebrities who have money or clout, and are increasingly precious about their image. Witness the HP spokesperson complaining to the Financial Times after a throwaway negative reference to HP CEO Meg Whitman, threatening to pull advertising from the newspaper.

This shift has also led to a rise in attempts to control the message in mainstream media, at a time when social media has taken away control in other areas. Two areas come to mind – interviews and copy approval. When I started in PR, most interviews with trade press were organised, a briefing provided to the spokesperson and they were given the journalist’s number to call. Follow-up ensured that the journalist had everything they wanted, but that was the extent of the control. Since then, even the most straightforward interview with the most trusted interviewer, has to have a PR person present. This is fine if all they are doing is keeping track of what was said, housekeeping and politely reminding the spokesperson if they’ve missed something vital.

The second area, copy approval, is much more insidious, and is in the news this week with a media debate about an interview carried out for Saga Magazine by journalist Ginny Dougary with presenter Clare Balding. Dougary claims that Balding and her agent were given copy approval of the resulting piece, and inserted additional material and quotes within it, prompting her to ask for her name to be removed from the article. Balding insists that the Saga editor herself made the changes and that she did not have copy approval.

Whatever the real story behind what has predictably been dubbed the #SagaSaga, it does bring into the light the whole area of copy approval i.e. the subject of an interview being shown the draft article and being able to make changes to it. I’ve never worked in celebrity PR but I know that many interviews don’t take place without copy approval in place, even if it is just to ensure that the interviewee’s new book/play/cuddly toy/wedding get a mention, while certain areas are declared off-limits to questions.

What is insidious is that granting copy approval by its nature makes the resulting article less independent. Some of the most interesting interviews I’ve read have a tension or awkwardness between the subject and the journalist, which actually adds to the story and your understanding of the person involved. Copy approval means that interviews are more likely to be bland and on-message, controlled by the brand. There is a big difference between sharing an article for fact checking (which journalists I’ve worked with have done before when covering very technical subjects), and copy approval of the whole piece.

As Dougary points out, copy approval undermines independence. If people stop believing that what they read in properly researched, fact checked, mainstream media, then we are accelerating down the road to fake news at alarming speed. This case may be about a celebrity in a consumer magazine, but the principle is the same – the public need to be certain that the stories they see in the press are not controlled by the subject, and are unbiased. Otherwise, it does whittle away at the truth, harming the whole media industry and removing debate at a time when we need it most.

Photo By Keith Page (Claire Balding) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

October 4, 2017 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment